Laura E. Hall on how escape rooms are more like video games than you’d expect

The surprisingly strong bond between escape rooms and video games

On the topic of escape rooms – the mysterious venues that have popped up seemingly everywhere over the last few years – there are few as informed as Laura E. Hall. She’s been there, done that, and quite literally wrote the book on it. The book in question, Planning Your Escape, aims to pass on some of her escapist expertise to anyone looking to polish up their skills in the field (or room).

Admittedly, Hall has carved out quite a specific niche. Sitting down to chat with NME, she explained that she’s always been “a puzzle and mystery lover” – all the way back to her passion for Nancy Drew at a young age.

Hitting fast-forward, she explains that “in college, I got super into alternate reality games which introduced me to the puzzle genre. The thing that I thought was really interesting about those was that they’re time-based, right? It’s a community coming together to solve this game, but the narrative is interactive and responsive to the audience. That was the thing I really liked about it, but I never really saw myself as a puzzle person.”

That perception changed when she moved to Portland in 2010 and was introduced to a “puzzle pint” event where “you show up to just drink a beer and solve puzzles”. The event was a turning point for Hall, who found that this “was sort of the first time I did think of myself as a puzzle person, though in truth I’d been solving puzzles for years”. From there, Hall’s passion for puzzles spiraled into bigger, “more intensive” team-based puzzles.

Laura E Hall
Laura E. Hall, speaking at GDC. Credit: GDC.

“We’d just been doing one in Seattle and we heard about this thing called ‘escape rooms’, it was brand new. We played it and we’re totally blown away, you know?”

That very first escape room had a huge impact on her. Such an impact, in fact, that on the drive back home from the venue Hall and her friends made the decision to launch their own.

“We agreed that we were already puzzle people; we like narrative, we make video games, we do theatre… we should do something like this. The potential of these games was so obvious to us as a fun team-based thing, in a physical space around you that tells a story, but has puzzles that can be really fun and challenging.

“On that drive back, my group of friends and I were like, we have to try this, right? And so we did. We opened, I think, the first one in Portland, maybe the first one in Oregon.”

Hall and friends opened their first escape room in “a small building in the industrial district”, and it came with some pros that would be cons in any other business. “It was kinda spooky, had a lot of atmosphere, and was a worn-down building. Most importantly, it was cheap.”

Hall adds that according to an Escape Artist survey, there were – at the time – only 22 like-minded companies in the whole of the United States. “We opened one that was highly narrative, integrated puzzles and mechanics into the story, very early electronics in a time when that wasn’t being done all that much…Yeah, it all sort of went from there.”

“It all sort of went from there” sums up the sprawl of escape rooms that friends, workplaces, and families alike have been drawn to over the years. There’s very clearly something there that appeals to plenty of people – something that can convince a gaggle of friends to trade in the safety of their tabled pints to be voluntarily locked in a room. But what is it?

For Hall, she states that the joy of escape rooms comes down to being there and working together with friends.

“You can have an amazing and fun time with your friends in even the worst room, a game with a terrible design, specifically because you’re there with your pals, you can make the best of any situation. We have played hundreds of rooms over time and even in terrible ones we can at least have a laugh because we’re together.”

Then again, it’s probably not ideal to get into the habit of actively searching rubbish escape rooms. There are all sorts of reasons that a venue could be a bit naff, but we’re speaking to the expert: going the entirely other way, what is it that makes the perfect puzzle? She explains that lots of a puzzle revolves around “the dynamic between the puzzle setter and the puzzle solver”, and a good one should let players “examine the puzzle and kind of know what it’s expecting from you, or you find pleasure in figuring out what it’s expecting from you”.

If this sounds a little familiar, you’re not the only one thinking it. Hall points out that despite the unique and physical premise of escape rooms, so far detached from console or screen, they share some very striking similarities with video gaming.

“It’s like a video game in that way, it’s a system of rules that you enter, but because you’re in the real world you’re still testing those boundaries and figuring out what in-game and out-of-game means. What responds and what doesn’t. All to get a sense for what’s actually going on. In that sense, escape rooms are more like indie games rather than AAA titles because it’s a different developer every time so you have to figure out what they consider a puzzle, what’s a red herring, what’s just a cool piece of artwork. There’s like a little assessment period every time.”

In that regard, is it really so surprising that we’ve flocked to escape rooms? Like countless video games, we’re drawn to experiences that engage us with our friends. Whether that involves gunning down other players in Warzone or working with your pals to escape through a very-real locked door, perhaps we’re chasing the social aspect of things more than we realised.

There’s an even simpler connection, a big reason that anyone will play games of any type: We almost always want to win. With that in mind, it would be a shame to speak with Hall and forget the most important question: what’s the best way of actually escaping one of these rooms? After all this talk of community and friendship, it’s no surprise that she says “the escape room is going to start with your team”.

“Escape rooms are not solitary experiences and you really do have to work together in order to achieve success.”

More specifically, Hall recommends “checking in with your teammates, knowing when to stop and switch out to get fresh eyes on [puzzles]. Making sure the team dynamic is good throughout the whole thing is an equally important thing throughout the experience.”

“The most important thing is assessing information, do look around; what do you see? What do you have? Specifically, what hasn’t been used yet? That’s where communication comes in again. In general, rooms are trying to challenge you but not trick you. They’re not there to point and laugh at you Nelson from The Simpsons style. All the information you need should be there, or you’re about to access it.”

Furthermore, it might sound counterproductive to using your wits and intellect to escape, but Hall actually recommends asking for help if you’re well and truly stuck:

“Constantly checking in with the game is a big part of it, and part of that is knowing when to ask for a hint. If a hint hasn’t been given, maybe you’re close but you can ask for that confirmation of information. Do we have all the information we need right now? Is our code correct? If you’re basing the rest of your solve on something that’s not correct or you don’t have all the information yet, that can be really helpful.”

Laura E. Hall
Laura E. Hall. Credit: Laura E. Hall.

Obviously, these hints won’t just give you the keys to the kingdom (or the door). Hall describes “an art to hint giving”, that nudges folk in the right direction without taking away the satisfaction of working it out.

Hall can’t exactly give too much away herself, either. Not only is “protecting the secrecy” surrounding escape rooms vital to the industry, but she also has a recently released book that – among other things – helps readers polish up their Houdini impression.

So hey; if you’re into the usual video games and fancy something new, why not round up some pals and try out an escape room? As it turns out, you might find out the two have more in common than you’d think.

Laura E. Hall’s latest book – Planning Your Escape – can be picked up on Amazon, Waterstones, and other book stores now. 

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